Stephen Kalinich is a self-taught artist with a prolific career. He initially gained prominence in the 1960s writing song lyrics for The Beach Boys, and has since collaborated with Paul McCartney, P. F. Sloan, Brian May and many other famous composers and performers. Although often described as a “poet” whose works uphold 1960s hippie values, Kalinich has been active in many fields, performing his poetry, recording his own songs, acting in movies and now, in his late 70s, starting to paint. Here, he is interviewed by film director Alexander Tuschinski who has been a friend for several years now.
by Alexander Tuschinski
Stephen, when we last met in Los Angeles this February you gave me a wonderful tour of your apartment-turned-painting studio, and you were busy recording a spoken-word album. How have you spent the time since?
I keep busy being creative, be it creating new paintings or songs. Besides that, I have done a few Zoom performances and I’m doing charity work for the homeless and people affected by the virus. I have a new album coming out called “The Essential Yo MaMa” with Jon Tiven and many talented collaborators; we just put the deal together. I feel it’s important to keep being creative no matter the circumstances. Right now, I probably enjoy performing poetry and painting plus improvisation the most. I am inspired many times daily.
With this interview, my goal is to not only learn about you and your career, but also to potentially inspire people from all walks of life to just start doing creative things for the love of it. That’s my goal with many of my documentary films, too. What do you think about that?
I’m always trying to inspire people to express themselves, so I agree with you completely. At the same time, I do not want to act as if I were superior to others. Something a lot of artist don’t have is humility. Without humility, you cannot be a great artist, a great poet, and this is something that many performers, directors, producers and so on lack. It’s important for me to have people know that.
What artists influenced you when you first became interested in writing? Did you initially think that writing, or particularly song writing, would ever become a career? Did you receive much support?
I do not have much of a faith in pinpointing “influences”. All of life is an influence for me, but I put it together in my own way. Eventually, you make it your own. Some artists influenced me, but so did life experience, travel, just living, creating and discovering my own voice. That being said, there were many artists whose works I enjoyed when growing up. Among them were Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, P.F. Sloan, The Beach Boys, the Beatles and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
My parents were divorced. My mom was supportive, while my dad was not involved much in my upbringing – he was a professional golfer, a head pro at many country clubs and remarried. My mom did not stop the flow, she let me do almost anything I wanted. She was a loving soul, very kind and sweet. Even though I was not very disciplined, she was seldom angry at me. I always loved to perform in front of audiences since my grandparents had me entertain their guests in their house. Outside of home, I did not receive much support with my creative works, especially with the poetry. Many people said it would never happen. So, I just wrote and performed, and never thought of a career.
Stephen Kalinich’s texts became famous in songs by The Beach Boys:
You were born and went to college at the East Coast, but then decided to go to Los Angeles in 1965. LA in the 1960s must have been a fascinating place as a young artist. What was it like when you arrived, did you already have contacts? What did you do when you arrived? How did your creative career start?
When I first came to LA in my early 20s, I actually wanted to go to med school here. I knew no one except for a few of my father’s friends. It was a fascinating place. I remember how exciting it was to me to see oranges growing on a tree, experiencing the great weather, seeing the celebrities… It was like living in a dream, but right next to the wealth was utter poverty. There were many homeless people on the streets, even back then.
Shortly after starting, I dropped out of college when I got a break with my artistic career. From then on, I knew I wanted to be a poet, a spoken-word performer and later a songwriter. But, mostly, I was interested in performing. Brian Wilson wanted me to do a rock record around that time but I never did, as I realized my “drive” was neither fame nor notoriety, but I did want to be known as a peace bringer. I just wanted my work to be used for world peace. Even when I went to Brian Wilson and started collaborating with The Beach Boys in 1968, I cared about the love and the peace and not so much about being a “star” or even a “rock star”. Of course, I am a human being like everyone else and I am not on “a higher planet” so to say. So, even though it was already my goal, I was not totally selfless, and as my career progressed, I did enjoy having a successful song. But over the course of my life I learned to always put my position of wanting to do good and creating a life that’s better for all beings first.
Your collaboration with The Beach Boys – in particular Dennis Wilson – on the album “Friends” in 1968 has been discussed many times. Your songs “Little Bird” and “Be Still” are beautiful and rightfully held in high regard. Your very poetic lyrics came at a time when The Beach Boys started considerably deviating from their original surf image. The Beach Boys, led at the time by the legendary Brian Wilson, were huge stars, and you were writing poetry as a hobby, having just started out in Los Angeles, how did this collaboration come about?
Dennis heard about me through his brother Brian. The entire story began with a lucky chance meeting: One day, at the Hollywood YMCA, I met Jim Critchfield who worked with the famous Jay Ward of Bullwinkle fame. Jay became a friend and huge fan of my poems after I performed in private in his auditorium. He was also a friend of Brian’s, and told me that Brian had just started a new record company and might be open to a poet songwriter. To make a long story short, they set up a meeting with Brian and within weeks I was signed on as a writer. It was exciting, I received a $500 advance which felt like a lot of money back then, when rent was $100 a month. That was the beginning. It was a lucky huge break for me, which led to many more contacts. Additionally, at the time when I wrote “Be Still” and “Little Bird”, I was in love, which might shine through in these lyrics.
What did it feel like when you first heard the final recordings of your songs on the „Friends“ album?
I particularly remember hearing „Little Bird“ for the first time. I lived in a motel back then and used a payphone on a sidewalk just outside my room as my telephone – I could hear its ringing from within my room. The Beach Boys believed that number was a regular telephone in my apartment, because I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have enough money for one. One day in 1968, it rang, I ran out of my room to answer, and there was Al Jardine on the other end, playing „Little Bird“ for me through the phone. So, I listened to my first collaboration with The Beach Boys on an LA side walk through a payphone. I was thrilled, it was an unforgettable moment for me.
You also collaborated with Dennis Wilson when he did a solo album in the 1970s. How did you get along?
Dennis and I became friends, deep friends. We did almost everything together. We first hung out a lot while working and it quickly became a friendship. When collaborating on a song, we would work a little, then go out to eat. We loved each other. He was very respectful of my poetry and said I can influence the world for good and so did Brian, who also became a good friend.
What was the process like when you collaborated with Brian and Dennis Wilson?
The collaboration with both of them was beautiful. Dennis spontaneously came up with melodies off the words with me. He had a rare gift: He could hear a poem and instantly set it to music in his head and sing it back. Very few people saw that side of him. With others, he would do the music first and then find words to it, but not with me. In all our songs I wrote the words first. It was a beautiful collaboration. With Brian I did it both ways. Usually words first, but for the song “A Friend Like You,“ which he performed with Paul McCartney, he gave me the melody first.
Beside Brian and Dennis Wilson, you collaborated with many composers on songs. Do you have a “usual” procedure when collaborating with a composer who sets your words to music? What are your experiences?
It depends. I usually write the words first, but I have done it both ways. I think, to be quite honest, I do not like collaborating on songs most of the time; it’s a struggle, but once in a while it works. It really depends on the collaborator. I am not of the school that the chef is responsible for all of the meal, it takes many players, be it with films, with cooking and so on, but poetry is more of a lonely journey. It requires a special view of living that is less tied to perfection than to joy. That being said, something I love is when musicians improvise to my poems and spoken words.
You never published a book of your poetry. Instead, starting with the LP “A World of Peace Must Come,” which you recorded with Brian Wilson in 1969, you released your poems as spoken-word performances. The performance of “Be Still” on that LP is, to me, one of your finest works. Only quite recently, you started to publish written poems on social media. Is the performance as important to you as the text itself?
Performance is important, but the poem itself must deliver. When I perform, I try to reach, touch, speak to each person in the audience. I try to include them and make it a communication for all of us, in the sense that I want to reach them but let them come to their own conclusions. When I was younger, I used to be an athlete, and I brought my energy from sports into performing. My performances were not subdued, but very energetic. Someone back then compared them to Mick Jagger. I generally prefer live recording – it’s more spontaneous, and even though there might be flaws and mistakes it has an urgent, real feel to it. Recordings in a studio are great but I prefer the straight inspiration of life. Although “Be Still” was not recorded in front of an audience, it was very much “in the moment” – I just recited the poem as Brian played the organ to it spontaneously in one take. All in all, I’d say it’s all important – the text, the performance, the staging. I love performing, I love writing, I love painting, it all belongs together.
„Be Still“, known as a song by The Beach Boys, expanded as a Spoken-Word-Performance:
One evening when we walked in Los Angeles last year, you just started improvising a highly creative, profound and poetic text about our surroundings as we walked by. Do you generally create very intuitively and quickly, or do you sometimes labor over a work for a long time? What do you think of poetry slams?
When it comes to painting, I like to leave “mistakes” in them as part of the artwork, but with songs and poems, less so. I rewrite, polish, edit, cultivate my poems; I lay a garden and take out the “weeds” until it has grown to its full shape. It depends on the work, though, if I like its raw form I leave it alone. You have to look at each work individually to see what it requires. In my writing, I want to allow people room for discovery. I hope I do not demand, but I try to open up a dialogue and get my view of it across, too. I do enjoy some poetry slams, but it’s only one kind of poetry that’s often very “showy”. I prefer variety: Sometimes, I like a slowly recited poem that takes you to peace, or sometimes one that disturbs you.
You have experimented with many genres, like performing a rap in a music video in the 1980s. That rap performance, “Everybody’s Got a Car In LA,” subverts all expectations one might have of such a video in a good-natured, silly way, and you told me that you were “just having fun” doing it. It is quite a contrast to some of your “deeper” works. Tell us a bit about it.
We are all a combination of many feelings. I sometimes enjoy creating a deliberately silly song that makes you laugh, and I also like to create serious works that rivet you like the “Galactic Symphonies”. My credo is: Let’s create some peace with joy, but also with dead serious words when it is relevant. The rap song you mentioned – I had the idea, wrote the lyrics quickly and Chris Pelcer put music to it. That’s just how it was born, spontaneously, without many rewrites, I loved the spontaneous flow. It was fun, as I created an alter ego for the music video: Stevie Nobody, whom I later developed more with Jon Tiven in “Yo MaMa”. Somewhere, I have a raw outline of a script for a movie about Stevie Nobody which I want to direct one day.
You have picked up painting only quite recently and are entirely self taught. Your paintings show a very distinct style, and you often repurpose objects to use as a canvas; be they empty cereal boxes, pieces of cardboard and wood or any other material. What made you decide to start expressing your creativity this way, in your mid 70s? Do you have any painters whose works influence you?
I think many painters inspire me, but I am not sure whether I have been influenced or not by their art. I love Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Franz Kline. I was particularly touched by the works of Vicci Sperry, a dear friend who encouraged and supported me. Today, I am not as fond of landscapes as I used to be. Instead, I prefer little faces, and also abstract forms, shapes or color. I never know what I will paint one day to the next, it’s mostly a very intuitive process. I love to seek the unexpected while painting, I love the surprise, the spontaneous outbursts, the calming down, the rage, the calming, the chaos, and trying to shape it into a work that touches me and hopefully some others as well. Only on rare occasion, once in a while, will I set out with a plan for a painting.
You ended up collaborating with numerous artists, including quite a few musicians you listened to while growing up. Many of them have become friends. How do you feel about it?
Grateful. The way I feel today is that I am grateful for all of the people I met, for all the positive ones, and even for those I had negative experiences with, because I learned lessons from them. I love my friends, many have encouraged me, inspired me, but I went my own way.
You are now in your late 70s and highly productive. In a recent, autobiographic poem published on Facebook, you wrote that you have been painting daily for the past three or four years. Do you have a message for people who might want to try to express themselves creatively, but still hesitate?
Be open to this journey of life, be passionate. Make a film, paint, hike, whatever you want within reason – try it. Be kind to other beings, get you ego out of the way, embrace humanity. Just create. Do it, just try. Do not judge yourself, just keep at it. Do not hesitate, go for it whatever it is you do. In all aspects of life, keep joy and adventure alive. Gerda Herrmann, the self-taught „Songwriter of Botnang” whom you made a wonderful documentary film about, is a great example. She’s 89, wrote her first song at 53 and keeps spreading joy through her music. Last year, she set my poem “If I Can Be a Benefit” to music, which made me very happy. It’s never too late. Just create.
You can find Alexander Tuschinski’s interview with Gerda Herrmann (in German) here.
And for more information about director and filmmaker Alexander Tuschinski check out his interview by actor Thomas Goersch (in German as well).